donna summer. the mere mention of her name evokes visions, feelings, and sounds of heaven on the dance floor. dubbed the queen of disco, along with sylvester, donna’s voice soundtracked the queer utopia that was the 1970s. from her 1975 seductive breakout hit “love to love you baby” to her final dance chart-topping hit “to paris with love” in 2010, donna summer transcended her “queen of disco moniker” and reigned supreme as the pioneering queen of dance/pop music.
born donna adrian gaines in 1948, the boston native had her debut performance at church when she was 10 years old after the scheduled singer failed to show up. donna’s voice left the congregation in awe. eight years later, donna was performing in munich as part of the german production of “hair.”
by the mid-1970s, donna returned to the US, with a new last name, just as dance music was rising to mainstream prominence. “love to love you baby,” co-written by donna and originally recorded as a demo for someone else, became a surprise pop hit reaching #2 in early 1976. by the end of the decade, donna was one of the most successful singers and songwriters in music history, becoming the first artist to have three consecutive double albums top the billboard album chart.
donna summer’s musical catalog did not just pave the way for electronic dance music but arguably created the pop/dance club dance template that inspired madonna, beyoncé, and every dance artist that followed. donna also broke the glass ceiling of the once “whites-only” MTV network, when her “she works hard for the money” music video became the first by a Black woman to be added in heavy rotation at the station. she was also the first Black woman nominated for a VMA.
during her lifetime, donna charted over 40 songs on the hot 100 including four #1 singles. donna topped the dance charts 16 times and even after her relationship with the queer community was rocked in the early 1980s, after alleged homophobic remarks, donna’s commitment to her queer fanbase strengthened until her death at the age of 63, on may 17, 2012. the following year, she was posthumously inducted into the rock & roll hall of fame.
a few years ago, i traveled to puerto rico to support boricua LGBTQ elders with rebuilding homes after hurricane maria. on the night before i left, electricity had just been restored to the home of an elder. the first thing she did to celebrate was put on her donna summer’s “greatest hits” cd and blasted the music at full volume. “i don’t understand a word, but i love her voice.” queen donna summer was still soundtracking queer celebration, years after her death. that’s legacy!